What is Good Writing? First, Strengthening Ones Literary DNA

The well-read Henry Higgins from “My Fair Lady.” 

It’s 9:06 PM and I’m reading Thoreau for the first time. Continue reading “What is Good Writing? First, Strengthening Ones Literary DNA”

What is Good Writing? Evan S. Connell’s "Mrs. Bridge"

This semester, I signed up for a class called “Thickening the Plot,” taught by a petite funny lady with short, grey-blonde hair and round glasses. When she smiles, her eyes get small and you can see her gums, which my mother tells me is a sign of a person not to be trusted. But I think for this professor, I’ll make an exception.

I heard her speak at orientation. She was one of three women who were assigned to speak to the non-fiction students, and she was the most humorous and open. She sat comfortably in her chair, leaning slightly back with her legs loosely crossed in comparison to the other two women, who were writers too, but I think less well known. They sat more primly, hands clasped in their laps and a nervous look on their faces as though they hoped they wouldn’t be called on. It’s always funny to me when professors act like elementary school students. Sometimes on campus I see a professor eating alone, or walking somewhere with their heads bent low or absorbed in something on their phones, hoping I think, not to be recognized or approached. In class, they come alive. They turn on. But this professor, of the short graying hair and the round glasses, is always on. She was not my professor then, but at orientation she strode to the podium to welcome us in a clear but slightly warbly voice, and cracked a few non-funded MFA jokes (something about Columbia being expensive, but worth it…she hopes). Those of us who were feeling awkward or on the verge of dozing off awoke, relieved to be laughing and charmed by this slight woman, dressed rather mannishly in slacks and sensible brown shoes, and whose voice and manner of speaking indicated that in fact, she had a steely writer’s core and strong opinions. 
I immediately thought: “I don’t know what she’s teaching but I want to be in her class.” I wasn’t the only one. I furtively pulled out my phone and emailed the course administrator while the professor spoke, noticing from my peripheral vision several other students doing the same thing. A while later I received an unsurprising response: “Her class has a pretty long waiting list, but I’ll see what I can do.” 
I took matters into my own hands and showed up on the first day of her class along with a half dozen of other hopefuls. We crowded into the small, sparsely furnished seminar classroom, with tables arranged to sit fifteen comfortably but were now meant for twenty, and waited as she called roll of the lucky twenty students that had the good sense to sign up early. Then she turned to those of us who weren’t on the roll.
“I can’t promise anything,” she said, “But it looks like we’ll fit.”
I looked around the room. There were about eight of us seated alongside the walls, removed from tables which could only seat twenty. It was a fire hazard, but yes, we did fit. 
A week later I was on the roll, and already immersed in the reading list.  
The professor it turns out, is much stricter than her easy manner suggests. She dislikes it when we leave the room to use the restroom, which for me and my unfortunate pea-sized bladder, is an issue. There is a possibility I will end the semester with a kidney infection. She also dislikes it when we eat because most of the packaged foods (granola bars, chips, sandwich wrappers) students prefer are wrapped in a noisy materials like that hybrid aluminum cellophane. It is too noisy and disruptive. This is also a problem because I like eating. Especially in class. But her ears are quite sensitive, and she’s asked me twice now, to put my granola bar away (I forget because we only have class once a week, so it hasn’t been ingrained yet. My almost Pavlovian response to sitting down in class is to take out a granola bar). But I am working on being sensitive to that.

She has an iphone, an unexpected gadget for a woman who put her phone number down on the syllabus. 

“I really prefer you call me,” she said, “anytime between nine and nine. It’s just so much faster.” 
Her students, raised on email, instant and text messaging, looked at her curiously. 
I’m not saying the class is a disappointment. I didn’t sign up for a comedy show, after all, but nor did I sign up to hear my classmates expound on the novels we are reading. But that’s a seminar for you. The takeaway, I suppose, is the professor’s taste, revealed in her carefully curated reading list. I can’t quantify the monetary value of a good reading list because there is none, or if there is, it won’t become apparent until many years down the line, when I sell some ten thousand words for a few hundred dollars, (if I’m lucky), or recall it during a thoughtful afternoon lull, contemplating the profundity of the life I’m living and how near or far it is to/from the life I thought I would live, et cetera, et cetera. That sort of thing. It is, if I were to label generously, a foundation of sorts – a slow, cooking type of education that just happens to cost as much as an MBA. 
Apart from Ian McEwan, I did not recognize any of the other authors on the list. The subjects range from homeless people to farming to Lyndon Johnson to lesbianism (a graphic novel!). Each book represents a different approach/technique to plot development, something non-fiction writers struggle with because much of the time, we don’t know how things are going to unfold or end. Now, three weeks in, we’ve arrived at Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, a novel about a lonely woman and her family, which despite its dull cover directed at prim, repressed women of a certain age, will probably be one of my favorites this year. 
Anyway. Other people do it better, and I am lucky to be learning, both in person and on paper, from such people: 
From the first vignette of Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell: 
1. Love and Marriage 

Her first name was India – she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. Or were they hoping for another sort of daughter? As a child she was often on the point of inquiring, but time passed, and she never did. 

Now and then while she was growing up the idea came to her that she could get along very nicely without a husband, and, to the distress of her mother and father, this idea prevailed for a number of years after her education had been completed. But there came a summer evening and a young lawyer named Walter Bridge: very tall and dignified, red-haired, with a grimly determined, intelligent face, and rather stoop-shouldered so that even when he stood erect his coat hung lower in the front than in the back. She had known him for several years without finding him remarkable in any way, but on this summer evening, on the front porch of her parents’ home, she toyed with a sprig of mint and looked at him attentively while pretending to listen to what he said. He was telling her that he intended to become rich and successful, and that one day he would take his wife -“whenever I finally decide to marry” he said, for he was not yet ready to commit himself – one day he would take his wife on a tour of Europe. 

Edward Hopper Summer Evening  1947 Oil on Canvas, Private Collection

A few months after her father died she married Walter Bridge and moved with him to Kansas City, where he had decided to establish a practice. 
All seemed well. The days passed, and the weeks, and the months, more swiftly than in childhood, and she felt no trepidation, except for certain moments in the depth of the night when, as she and her new husband lay drowsily clutching each other for reassurance, anticipating the dawn, the day, and another night which might prove them both immortal, Mrs. Bridge found herself wide awake. During this moments, resting in her husband’s arms, she would stare at the ceiling, or at his face, which sleep robbed of strength, with an uneasy expression, as though she saw or heard some intimation of the great years ahead. 

She was not certain what she wanted from life, or what to expect from it, for she had seen so little of it, but she was sure that in some way – because she willed it to be so – her wants and her expectations were the same. 

For a while after their marriage she was in such demand that it was not unpleasant when he fell asleep. Presently, however, he began sleeping all night, and it was when she awoke more frequently, and looked into the darkness, wondering about the nature of men, doubtful of the future, until at last there came a night when she shook her husband awake and spoke of her own desire. Affably he placed one of his long white arms around her waist; she turned to him then, contentedly, expectantly, and secure. However nothing else occurred, and in a few minutes he had gone back to sleep. 

This was the night Mrs. Bridge concluded that while marriage might be an equitable affair, love itself was not. 

Distractions

How easy it is to get side-tracked in this city. A year ago, I visited New York with my cousin from Taiwan. We stayed at the upper west side apartment of her friend (and now my friend too), a Columbia architecture student named Albert who was, like my cousin, is also from Taiwan. One evening after dinner, we were walking back to Albert’s place and someone – it may have been Albert, it may have been my cousin – suggested something obvious which had already, from the moment my plane touched down onto the tarmac, been taking shadowy shape in my subconscious:

“Why don’t you apply to Columbia’s writing program?”

At that point, I had applied to zero programs, but was shuffling six or so schools in the back of my mind, mostly because those six schools were the only ones I knew who offered non-fiction programs. They were also in unfamiliar states with more farm and/or wild animals than people. I had never considered Columbia. NYU, yes, because of my “familiarity” with it, but not Columbia. It didn’t seem out of reach as just hugely expensive and ivy-league and serious. I didn’t exactly associate it with the arts so much as business, law and medicine. But then I considered Albert, who was studying architecture, considered the fabulous if not liver-ruining time he was having in the city, and our trip thus far, which was filled with shopping, good food, and leisurely strolls through pretty parks and neighborhoods. It was, aside from the money spent doing the aforementioned things, a great city for a writer. The city teemed with “subjects” because it teemed with life. Though it seemed entirely possible that not a thing would be written. I nodded thoughtfully and said to both of them, “Yes, I should consider it.”

I didn’t actually look into Columbia until I went home to California, though New York was certainly still fresh on my mind. I was uneasy, however. In the city, we spent days strolling through the High Line, Central Park, and the West Village. Everywhere I looked, I saw young people like myself (though dressed in way more plaid and corduroy) sitting, writing and thinking. And writing. In Moleskins. It was apparent New York was already filled with writers and/or writing students (some people make the distinction. I am undecided). I remembered a conversation with a friend about his burgeoning family Christmas parties and how inevitably, in the near future because cousins were having kids left and right and the walls of his parent’s house remained inflexible, they would have to disassemble and branch off into smaller families parties.

“We’re reaching critical mass,” he had said drily, and I nodded to myself now thinking about the writer situation in New York. That was exactly it, minus the critical. Just writers en masse.

As was precisely my feeling, when I was walking through these famed New York areas, where tourists and unemployed artists/writers/creative thinkers like to congregate. The former to take photos every few feet and the latter to sit and write a line or two, every few feet.

I remember stopping on the High Line to buy a sour cup of coffee (Blue Bottle, if you’re wondering), and feeling slightly chilled by the brisk fall breeze. The feeling and the smell were familiar to me from my first fall in New York, back in 2004, but this time I felt far from alone. I looked around me on either side of the coffee bar and saw two bearded young men sitting opposite each other on two small tables, both with notebooks open before them, both touching their beards in thoughtful ways and staring out across the High Line. Their journals, diaries, whatever name they gave to their paper darlings, looked loved. The lines were filled with small, scratchy words in inky black pen: genius works in progress.

Were they writing about their respective lovers? Men or women? I couldn’t quite tell, so wonky is my gaydar – but from the way their legs were crossed and their brows furrowed, I discerned that they were very serious about their “craft.” And really it wasn’t just those two men, but also all the writers they knew and the writers those writers knew and all the writers thinking about moving to the city and all the writing students thinking about applying and all the writers already living and writing and kind of working but not really and the writers already filling up the classrooms at Columbia, NYU, the New School, and really, the list goes on.

I rolled my eyes, paid for the coffee, and wondered if I wanted to add myself to such a saturated pool.

I returned home some days later and turned the computer on. Into the box, I typed, “Columbia MFA Creative Non-fiction.” My search was fruitful – so Columbia did have a creative nonfiction writing program. It was simple then – I would apply, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. They don’t give very much aid, if any at all, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go back there anyway. As most people applying to MFA programs are wont to do, I had my sights set on Iowa – not the Writer’s Workshop, but the Nonfiction Writer’s Program, which I told myself was no less distinctive. I imagined wearing chunky sweaters and thick brown boots, woolen socks, and eating lots of…gruel. I imagined looking out the window and seeing nothing but rows and rows of tree trunks (I have no idea still, what Iowa’s topography looks like) and brilliant pink and yellows of a sky at dusk, because that’s normally when I look out the window. I imagined small classrooms with other serious writers like myself, talking and laughing and constructively criticizing each other’s latest pieces.

“You could use more dialogue here,” I would say, and they’d nod thoughtfully and appreciatively, and everyone would emerge a better, more well-rounded writer.

On the weekends, I would sit at one of two cafes on the main boulevard and maybe attend a reading given by one of my classmates. Maybe I would go hiking. Learn to hunt. Start making my own fur-lined caps with knitted chin straps.

I did not imagine crowding the subways with bums and businessmen, or being haunted by unaffordable goods in the city’s million windows, or being pulled, socially, left, right, up, down because there is just too much goddamn stuff to do in this city. I had imagined a quieter life, at a quieter school in a quieter city where no one would ever want to come and visit and I had imagined to be writing a lot more, because what else is there to do in a town where everything shuts down at 5PM?

Instead Iowa turned their noses down and Columbia and by extension, New York, welcomed me with open arms. (So did North Carolina and West Virginia, but common writerly sense told me better to grind it out in a thriving city to whom sleep is a stranger with tens of millions of other writers who want the same thing than in the woods with a mere handful of writers and grizzly bears). Which is how I ended up in a, if not the city that never sleeps, or more specifically, a city whose denizens prefer to start putting on their makeup at midnight for what is actually a very early morning on the town. Physically, I am not cut out for this city. I think few writers are. I’m not sure how my classmates get anything done. Between the school-sponsored social events and the hundreds of literary events happening elsewhere in the city (I have never seen SUCH a packed Barnes and Noble when Junot Diaz showed up… I ended up not being able to even see him because there was no room! Writers are true celebrities here, at least in certain bookstores) and the people who are open and kind and inclusive of me in their established New York lives and my own guests who have been coming non-stop (keep coming! This is not a un-invitation. The best cities are meant to be shared!) and the general housekeeping that comes with living on my own and moving into a place that had nothing and the time it takes to do simple things like buy yogurt at a three-story Trader Joe’s (you have not seen a line until you go to Trader Joe’s in Manhattan) and get places (I will, some day, figure out the subway system. Simple as it is), I’m finding it a bit hard to find time to read and most disconcertingly, to write.

But I manage. I try to read during those myriad pockets of time, mostly waiting for the subway, but of course it’s much more fascinating (and productive, I feel) to people watch. So naturally I don’t get much reading done on the subway, though I’ve intently watched other people read books whose subjects range from scientology to brain-imaging to my favorite novels, which always makes me wonder if the reader and I will get along. And I try to write on quiet afternoons like this, before the start of the weekend, which for me, begins on Thursday and ends Sunday morning when it dawns on me that I have two novels to finish before Tuesday.

Of my classmates, there are a few who’ve admitted to being slow readers and even slower writers and I sort of just want to pat them on the back in an sympathetic way and say, “Good luck with that.” But then I think better of it, look at my own schedule and the dark circles under my eyes and the hair that’s been falling out all over my apartment, and I decide to pat my own back and say, “Keep it together, Betty. Remember what Dad said: don’t forget your goddamn degree.”

Personal Statement – Other People Helped Me Do It Better

It seems appropriate today, on my first day of school (how quaint that phrase is!), to reflect upon how three years after graduating from college, I ended up in a small but airy classroom on the fourth floor of Columbia’s Dodge Hall. Let me, for a moment, pretend that this is an award acceptance speech (because you know, it’s so almost the same thing): I’d like to thank my friends for their undying support in my “craft” (even though I’d throw up before I referred to it that way without quotes), my family and especially my parents for acknowledging that hey, I’m probably not suitable for anything else, my professors for taking the time to write recommendations (or not – incidentally if you’re wondering how much weight Columbia’s MFA program places on letters of rec, one of my professors completely forgot to submit the letter, leaving me with two out of three required letters), and of course, I’d like to thank every darling who reads my blog.

Your readership means plenty if not everything because I don’t have other writing to show my dedication or seriousness. What you see here is what I write. On top of that, I’m a bit of a philosophical ham, which means if I write but no one reads it, it’s like that proverbial tree felled in the proverbial forest: is it really written if it’s not read? Didn’t think so. In short: thank you. A million thanks for taking the time.

And, lastly, for the nuts and bolts required to build the actual application, most painful of which is the Personal Statement, I’d like to thank Adam Gopnik.

It is not a stretch to say that Adam Gopnik helped me get into Columbia’s MFA program. I thought briefly about lifting entire passages from his book, Through the Children’s Gate and pawning them off as my own in my personal statement, but disgraced plagiarists told me that wouldn’t be a wise course of action. Instead, I used his book as a jumping off point, allowing his insightful paragraphs to act as muse:

What New York represents, perfectly and consistently, in literature and life alike, is the idea of Hope. Hope for a new life, for something big to happen, hope for a better life or a bigger apartment. When I leave Paris, I think, I was there. When I leave New York, I  think: Where was I? I was there of course, and I still couldn’t grasp it all. I love Paris, but I believe in New York and in its trinity of values: plurality, verticality, possibility. 

In the end, Gopnik gave me more than a leg up. This is what I submitted:

I did not start writing in New York, but in New York I began to see myself as a writer.
I was unhappy when I first started college eight years ago and blogging seemed to be a respectable way to broadcast it to friends back home and random web surfers who were interested to know how life was for a NYU freshman from SoCal. In New York, I learned the benefits of writing for oneself yet at the same time, discovered a small audience. Rather than attend class I began to explore nonfiction and often browsed independent bookstores around the city. I discovered Russell Baker and David Sedaris at the Strand; Adam Gopnik and Betsy Lerner at Shakespeare and Co., and heard chef Anthony Bourdain speak at Barnes and Noble in Union Square – a big chain store, but it stayed open late – before returning to the Strand to buy his books. Theirs was great stuff, much like the essays I aspired to write.
I ended up dropping out of NYU and six years later, graduated from UC Berkeley, where I was admitted to a creative nonfiction workshop taught by Bharati Mukherjee and Clark Blaise. In their workshop, I gained confidence practicing a well-worn cliché: writing what I know. It is the one thing I have done consistently, day after day, year after year. Some would say I know very little, but what I do know – my work history and its carnivalesque collection of colleagues; my family, divided amongst sprawling Orange County, the tiny island of Taiwan and the glitteriest of all glittering metropolises, Shanghai; and the myriad of tiny moments observed at home and abroad – I know quite well.
On a recent trip to New York I revisited the Strand, where Adam Gopnik’s Through the Children’s Gate lay on a display table. I had recently quit my job as Executive Assistant to focus on MFA applications, but visiting friends and eating cupcakes in New York was not particularly conducive to this. However, standing in the Strand and reading Gopnik’s descriptions of New York after having been away, I found myself immersed in his and his wife’s hilarious apartment hunt, their first Thanksgiving, and the beauty of New York’s “quiet places” of which Gopnik had lost sight until his children pointed them out again. He writes, “We fill our eyes and head with things already seen and known, and try to see them and know them again.” This, I think, is a writer’s – especially of nonfiction – ultimate goal. I was reminded of why I started writing in the first place, and why I want to do so at Columbia University. 

I’ve just been in the classroom for a day – not even, just a mere two hours – but I felt not-so-strangely (despite the presence of my strange-looking classmates – but that’s MFA superficiality for you) that it was a sort of homecoming. I’m not an academic (at least not yet?) but there’s something right about the classroom. A writer is always learning. Should always be learning. The classroom offers but a facet, but when it comes to writing and reading and talking about both, the classroom is probably a good place to start what I’ll never finish. So it was the right thing to do. A year ago, it was the right thing to write, and now I’m in the right place. 

Procrastination Kills

Recently, loved ones have taken to congratulating me prematurely.

“You’re almost done! You must be so excited!”

“Just three weeks away!”

“I’m so proud of you! Do you want anything for graduation?”

“A graduate! You’ll be just like Dustin Hoffman in that one movie with the ambiguous ending!”

No one’s actually said the last one to me, but it’s the statement to which I can provide the most accurate response.

Lately I’ve been stalling. I haven’t been writing except for lame one pagers in my diary (pining about ‘Ben,’ mostly) and I certainly have not been reading for or participating in class discussions. True, “graduation” is only three weeks away (two, if I subtract the week of Thanksgiving, as I will be home for its entirety) and true, time, in its inevitable way, will fly, but right now, this Tuesday evening, the unwritten pages of final papers are piling up and I haven’t a clue as how to tackle them. It’s no longer a question of motivation – I haven’t been motivated to do well in school since senior year of high school – but rather, an issue with…”What now?”

I didn’t expect this stupid, common question to hit me too like the proverbial ton of bricks, but it has and my face hurts and so I’m asking: What now? I can see into the immediate future. I will graduate. With above average grades, below average affection for my alma mater. (At the department store the other day, I overheard a teenage boy discussing Berkeley and Brown – “I like both,” he said. I looked up from black boots that didn’t exactly fit, my face red, “Choose Brown,” I said.)

I know myself – writing papers assigned by youthful and elderly professors alike is, regardless of my attraction to them, like pulling teeth – and I will write them. I will turn them in and if they are graded by professors, will garner generous grades. If not the professors, then bitter, stingy GSI’s (graduate student instructors), who, if the holiday spirit vacates their hearts at the wrong moment, will damn my papers and final grades to scholarly hell (any grade below an A minus). I don’t want to be cast into that hell, especially not in my last semester, but while it’d be great to leave Cal with an academic bang (3.9 decibels loud!), I am wearied by all this relentless reading and writing and listening. I have waited six years to tune out higher education and on the 17th of this December, 2010, I will finally plug my ears and walk away.

My dear aunt called from Taipei two evenings ago. It’s been my spoken plan now, to leave the States for one or two years and fashion a little expat life for myself on the seventh floor (the most modest penthouse there ever was) in our family’s building on Dong Fend St.

“There’s a fine English cram school near my work,” my cousin told me happily. Both she and my aunt anticipate my return, as though my presence would somehow breathe fresh life into their self-perceived dull ones.

“There’s no one here to make waves,” my aunt sighed into the phone, “And Karen wants to live with you on the seventh floor. Perhaps things will be more exciting this way.”

And I’ve no doubt things will be exciting – I’ll teach English, make a killing (especially now, with my degree!) and shop, dine, watch movies whenever I please – it will be a more mature, more fabulous version of my life in Taipei nearly five years ago, when I tutored privately and taught at the National Taipei College of Nursing. Karen and I grew up together and the plan is to continue growing (or perhaps halt the aging process) while living out our single girl life in Taipei. Is this viable? Is it possible? Am I merely planning some elaborate escape? Taipei, despite its cloying humidity and bustling streets, is my mental cryogenic freeze. I go there to pause. To put “real” life, whatever that is, on hold. Ought I do that for more than six months not to mention a year? Or two?

I have my concerns, not least of which is Taipei’s dating scene- a veritable pond sans fish for a big-boned, deep-voiced, giant shark like me. (I believe I did, yes.) The year and twenty-three summers I’ve spent in Taipei have revealed that my “type” of man does not exist in Taipei. And if he does, he is there only briefly, on a stopover perhaps to bigger and more important cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong or Tokyo. No, Taipei gets the stringy foreigners from Europe and middle America – the guys who are misinformed about but endlessly by idiot Taiwanese girls. They come with pale, blotchy skin, holey t-shirts, and those disgusting sandals with the velcro straps and in the heat, break out in the worst cases of yellow fever known to man. Speak perfect English and their eyes glaze over – they don’t want communication, they want dumplings spooned into their mouths with submissive coos.

Equally repulsive are the wealthy ABC’s (American Born Chinese) and TEABRGHTWFD (Taiwanese Educated Abroad But Returning Home To Work For Daddy). When we were younger, my cousin and I studied my aunt’s wealthy friends, dreaming that marrying into one of these families was certainly the fast track to wealth, power and consequently, happiness. Thank god we developed brains along the way. Despite our meager (future) jobs and pitiful paychecks, we still have, in our fathers and other men we admire, standards to adhere to. And I confess there’s a bit of self-loathing going on here – I’m terrified of being my parents’ charity case (hence the plan to teach English in Taipei) but I would hate to date or marry another charity case, regardless of how lucrative the source of the charity may be.

Thus one setback Taipei might pose is the potential throwing away of two perfectly good years of my twenties. I’m not getting any younger. The crows feet that have stepped into the corners of my eyes are only getting deeper (and funny, I’m not laughing all that much). I’m not thinking too much. I’m thinking critically about my situation as a woman in the world.

Another crux: professional progress. Of course I can pledge to write everyday about the sights and sounds of Taipei and of my family – and most likely, I will, but how diligently will I revise? And how ardently will I complete the applications for the MFA programs I’ve also been crowing about? That was the whole plan, after all – graduate, move, teach, write, apply, enroll (Brown, UCI, Iowa – in that order), learn, write, publish, teach at Harvard. The master plan.

And now that’s it’s written and will soon be posted, I feel better. Now that it’s written, I can see how far this plan is, how strange my fears sound and how very achievable it all is. My imagination is quite vivid. My age still young.

My essays all due in less than three weeks, still unwritten. As long as they remain unwritten, the master plan will seem hazy and far. I can’t have that now, can I?

To Nabokov, Milton, Hitchcock and Wagner (the last not a famous writer but an adorable professor with an unfortunately dull class) – may you all see me to the end.